by Emily Dietrich

June 23, 2016
by Emily
Comments Off on Iron Tenderness in The Samurai’s Garden

Iron Tenderness in The Samurai’s Garden

Samurai's garden

Gail Tsukiyama created a world I have since needed to visit in her novel The Samurai’s Garden . I end up there when trying to cope with the hard news of another shooting or kidnapping and seeking calm, peace or escape. I read her 1994 novel at least a year ago, yet the garden’s colors, shapes and moods in different weather live vibrantly in my imagery bank. The novel’s topics can shake and disturb peace–a father’s betrayal, the Rape of Nanking, leprosy, for example–yet the center holds in her novel, in the garden, in my heart.

The center holds because of Tsukiyama’s prose, smooth and elegant, and in her complex characters, pummeled by life and still calm. She shows us a son’s pain at his father’s abandoning him, shows us a towering love story, educates us about the devastating war between Japan and China in 1937-8, about leper colonies and Japanese village life all the while insisting both that readers comprehend the depth of pain and remain awake to the beauty of the world. Stephen, our young narrator who suffers from tuberculosis, works at this balance for himself–and brings us along.

Tsukiyama’s novel, says the San Jose Mercury News, “ranks with the best of predecessors Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. The finely detailed setting and compelling mix of characters combine in a story that will encourage many readings to come.” Tsukiyama was raised in San Francisco, the child of a Japanese father and a Chinese mother.

May 31, 2016
by Emily
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“Indignation” and My Father’s Army Years


The movie version of Philip Roth’s novel is called “Indignation,” and its main character, Marcus Messner, has every right to his. Squeezed by threat of being drafted if he didn’t fit in and do well in his first years at a small university in Ohio, as well as by demands by school and parents on his love life, Marcus has to speak out and act out if he is to avoid exploding. The main character’s personal ethics and life circumstances are so similar to my father’s that I deepened my understanding of my father’s army experience, how he got to Korea and why.

“Indignation” is a good word for what I would have been feeling if I had been put under the pressure my father was, but he never expressed any—about being drafted, about being sent to war, about being shot at, about any of it. He expressed indignation occasionally, about Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes, McCarthy’s blacklist, income inequality for example, but never about being sent to Korea.

My father told the story about getting into the army this way: he was at Miami University in Ohio. He was taking engineering classes and doing so poorly, though working hard, that he figured he was stupid. He got drafted, had some time to think, and when he came back he switched to Wayne State University in Detroit and went into pre-law.

He never mentioned that going to college meant being able to defer the draft—but only if you earned good enough grades to be in the top 50% of your freshman class. Fitting in at college was also important, because you could be asked to leave if you didn’t. At the private college in the movie “Indignaton,” students are expected to go to chapel and to rush a fraternity. Marcus Messner is an atheist of Jewish heritage and didn’t see himself in a fraternity. He expresses his opinion that going to chapel was not fair. My father was also an atheist, and he told us that he was blackballed from at least one fraternity for expressing his pro-civil rights opinions.

He was being a young man, like Marcus Messner, searching for, and expressing, his developing identity. He majored in the wrong subject, totally unsuited to him, but engineering was what his father and his older brother studied, the subject that would prepare him to work in his father’s concrete business. Being not-so-great at an engineering curriculum meant getting drafted.

I think about how it must have felt to get his grades in the mail, facing his disappointment in his abilities would be hard enough, but those grades meant he was going to war. Did it feel as if it were his own fault? Did he feel he had only himself to blame? On his behalf, I feel indignation and anger that a country would send young men to die because they couldn’t afford college or struggled in college. It’s outrageous to attach the draft to achievement in that way. The draft itself is outrageous.

I often criticized my father and my mother for caring too much about what other people thought, for caring a lot about image and acting like everything was just fine all the time. I didn’t know, I really didn’t know, that the penalty for nonconformity had been so high, that fitting in and doing well meant life or death at an age when failure is the best teacher for a long life—not a crime punishable by death in war.

I feel sad that my dad thought he was stupid. though glad that he used his time in Korea to learn more about his talents. I know he was very pleased he became a lawyer, a job he loved all his life. I don’t understand why he told the story that way, left out the part about having to go to war because of his grades. I admire him for not being bitter about it. I’m extremely grateful that he was not killed.

This new knowledge comes at a good time for me. I will send my son to college this fall. It won’t be easy. But it’s not, as far as the government is concerned, a life or death situation. He can screw up and not be designated as a candidate for death. He can get indignant about whatever he wants.

Marcus Messner’s indignation showed me how angry the young men of the ’50s could have been and had every right to be. That my father wasn’t and accepted his situation with stoicism speaks of his inner strength and sense of personal accountability. For that, and for strong dialogue, great costumes and acting, and the powerful story of a young women who also did not, could not conform, I recommend seeing “Indignation.” I may even read the book!

But seeing this movie, for me, meant a wide window into a soul I miss so deeply has been opened, bringing me closer to my father.


December 4, 2014
by Emily
Comments Off on Interstellar Love and Logic

Interstellar Love and Logic

Still from  "Interstellar" (by Christopher Nolan and Paramount Pictures) of a black hole

Still from “Interstellar” (by Christopher Nolan and Paramount Pictures) of a black hole

Three dimensions have never been enough. We’ve always known that. In “Interstellar” the fate of the human race depends on the human brain’s expansion into understanding– and using– at least two more dimensions.  And the necessary expansion could never have happened without a lie.

I’ve read and heard reactions to “Interstellar” saying that it was hard to follow. I am told that Christopher Nolan frequently produces hard-to-follow films, such as “Inception.” I am willing to go along for most rides, especially when the spectacle earns its name. Watching “Inception” and “Interstellar” I went in for the experience, decided beforehand to like the movies, didn’t expect to know what was going on all the time, and I felt satisfied, if confused. I guess confusion is common enough in my brain that a lack of understanding doesn’t disappoint me.

In “Interstellar” I let the scientific explanations waft over me, accepting for the duration of the movie, at least, that all the facts presented made sense. I have to do that with most science anyway, since I myself have only performed about 30 lab experiments about 30 years ago. It’s all a bit mysterious, and that’s the way I like it–awesome, wonderful, a bit beyond me. Very much like sewing or cryptic crosswords or tides.

The non-scientific aspects of the theories in “Interstellar,” the ones that saved the human race, were completely comprehensible to me, and, unexpectedly, brought a new clarity to my relationship with love, hope/faith and creativity (otherwise known as lying). The science took our heroes to the black hole, but emotion and art took them the rest of the way. The love between father and daughter created a structure that hope made worth a try. That it would never work was obvious to the viewer and the characters, but when has that ever stopped our trying?

Finally, I must pay homage to the power of the lie, the artifact created by a creative, passionate thinker that kept hundreds of people dedicated to a hopeless cause. Story, poem, picture, sculpture, all not what they appear to be, are forces, maybe similar to the cross-dimensional force of gravity in the “Interstellar” universe.

And what about music? Though the soundtrack was effective, I would have liked the power of music to be explored in “Interstellar.”

The movie woke me up to the physical properties of love and hope, the aspects of the human intelligence which, when combined with science, make anything possible. Such as being with my parents across the line of the living.

November 12, 2014
by Emily
Comments Off on Dear White People–Open this Letter

Dear White People–Open this Letter

“Dear White People” keeps us checking ourselves and our society–and we white people need it. If you need some criteria to go by, you can get it here. You might be tempted to discount what you see as overblown, and  Samantha White ‘s radio show as too critical and sensitive. I’d say: folks, this is what it takes to move things forward.

One character shows us the crazy zigzagging necessary to navigate the power struggle within communities on a college campus. Lionel, my favorite character centers the film–though he might be used to better effect to unify the film more. Lionel is the one who fits in absolutely nowhere, not with the nerds, the activists, the artsy types, the gays. He won’t tweak his personality, style or opinions to assimilate to the distinctions each group display to the public. His need to be accepted somewhere, anywhere, points out the lack of compassion and acceptance present in most groups.

Lionel represents the exception that proves the rules, the many, many rules that every group inflicts upon itself. Even with the massive, potentially unifying force of white racism in America (and on college campuses everywhere), quibbles and hierarchies dilute power. Lionel’s commitment to loner-hood breaks down when he agrees to report for the paper on the inner doings of a black dorm, and it is his disgust that finally splits open the racist party. He does the right thing, even though he has to do it alone.

I don’t have to be convinced that racism is alive and well in America. Racism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia, anti-Semitism–they exist and have significant effects, if less part of polite conversation. Watching “Dear White People” shows me my own flaws as a member of the oppressed groups I’m in–feminist, atheist, fat person. Unity is elusive.

Unity eludes “Dear White People” on a lot of levels, from story to dialogue to character development. The story flips and jumps to serve an agenda, characters are inconsistent and flat. The ending offers a panacea-true love? At the same time, I wish the inner, racist workings of college administrations and racist themed parties could be labeled as over-dramatized, but current events show us they’re not. The movie puts this continued indulgence by whites of privilege insurance out there for us to see.

Yet “Dear White People” performs a similar service to America to that of Spike Lee’s “School Daze”: it tells us all WAKE UP! And keep working.

November 25, 2013
by Emily
Comments Off on A Message from My Mother (Across Death’s Bourn)

A Message from My Mother (Across Death’s Bourn)

Mom, what do I do about my kids, their pain, their struggle?

Keep trying.

Mom, its feels useless — or dangerous to me sometimes.

Giving up would be very dangerous to you, deadly.

I don’t have any good ideas, though, Mom. I don’t know where to turn.

No one does, really. Turn toward love though, whichever way you go. Face love. Think of the way a compass always points north. Orient yourself and your decisions always knowing where love is, locating it, and then letting it tell where everything else is.

But what if I can’t find love, Mom?

Be still. Withdraw, maybe. Listen to music. Try to wait to act until you can find it again. You will find it and very quickly, too.